In places where TV programs stream nothing but government propaganda, social media is closely monitored by secret services, elections are predetermined & dictators unapproachable. Clubhouse and Voice chat apps have brought a breath of fresh air to those who wish to congregate and express themselves freely on subjects ignored by the local press.
The democratization of information and this conduit for freedom of expression is perceived by many digital autocracies to be that existential threat. This is why many countries have chosen to either ban the application or exploit it via inauthentic activities.
In the Sultanate of Oman, the authorities said the app was blocked because “it was operating without the proper license”. Omar al-Abri, an official in the country’s telecommunications regulator did not elaborate on the licensing problem, and it remains unclear whether the ban is a temporary suspension to smooth out the bureaucracy or the latest government attempt to suppress dissent in the sultanate. In Jordan, when Reuters inquired about the reports of local media that mentioned how the kingdom has restricted access to the app the Ministry of Information and Communications did not respond to a request for comment. Beijing too. Based on the assumption of multiple news sources, worried about the conversation spiraling out of its control, China banned the app after some of its users discussed taboo topics, including the mass detention of Uighurs, democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the concept of Taiwanese independence.
Where the application has not been banned digital autocrats have adopted an approach of engagement and malign influence. In Egypt, the government has started to interfere in Clubhouse. One of the most followed chat rooms in the country, “Open Mic Egypt”, with thousands of subscribers and originally dedicated to personal development issues, now sees ministers and pro-Sisi cronies parade around. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities seem to want to saturate the network with trolls and informants to sow fear among users just like they did with twitter and ultimately rid the exchanges of any subversive element. Iran is but another digital autocrat that has sought to utilize the platform to advance its propaganda. Quickly realizing that its filters were not enough to keep Iranians from engaging on the platform the regime quickly turned it to its advantage. One such notable example is when, on March 31st, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif entered a virtual “room” to discuss that countries 25-Year, Strategic Cooperation, $400 bill agreement with China. In this instance, although participants were drawn from inside Iran and abroad, the moderator allowed only “select” journalists to pose questions. Tweeted by the former BBC Persian journalist, Negin Shiraghaei, “None of the journalists from outside Iran (other than NY times own reporter and another journalist in the US…) had a chance to ask any questions,” and “All the people on the stage are affiliated with the Iranian government.”
A medium, Voice Chat is here to stay with its full potential yet to be realized. The Big Tech companies are following suit. Amongst them is Twitter who launched Spaces, its audio platform, to users with more than 600 followers. Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, has also launched its latest experiment, Hotline, into public beta testing. The web-based application could be described as a mashup of Instagram Live and Clubhouse, as it allows creators to speak to an audience who can then ask questions through either text or audio. Not to be outdone, Reddit will introduce Reddit Talk, a similar concept expecting their users will flock to a new feature rather than download a whole new app. These are just a few names as there are plenty of others to come.
New data suggest that after a sharp spike in February to 9.6 million downloads, the peak may already be over. Clubhouse is down to around 900,000 downloads worldwide for the month of April, according to Sensor Tower, a company that offers intelligence on the “app economy.”
Totalitarian governments in the region see the internet as a threat… They are extremely innovative in finding ways to control it.
ADALA’s mission is to battle digital authoritarianism and one way to do so is by supporting social media app users with the right to express themselves and Voice Chat app users like the Clubhouse and others are no exception.